Fates Worse Than Death: Fighting with Kit Carson

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Famed scout Kit Carson is tasked with accompanying a shipment of government gold across hostile Indian territory.  Although it would be safer to wait and travel with the wagon train that will be arriving soon, Carson’s superiors insist that the gold shipment is urgent and that he hire some unfamiliar locals to ride with him.  Unbeknownst to him, the riders are part of a gang secretly run by fur trader Cyrus Kraft, who plans to steal the gold and use it to cement his control of the Southwest.  Sure enough, the party is attacked by Indians, and Carson is accused of betraying the riders by Reynolds, one of Kraft’s gang.  Carson is locked up to await trial for treason.

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Elsewhere, Kraft parleys with Cheyenne chief Dark Eagle in his trading post office.  Kraft encourages Dark Eagle to make war against the settlers filling the territory, the better for Kraft to control it, but the Cheyenne have no quarrel with their white brothers and Dark Eagle refuses.  (A memorable part of Kraft’s shtick is the knife which he toys with while in conversation; if Kraft hears something he doesn’t like, he drops the knife, seemingly by accident, a signal for his hidden confederate to kill whomever Kraft is talking with.) For his obstinance, the Cheyenne chief is murdered and his body is left in the path of the wagon train so that his tribe will blame the settlers.  Dark Eagle’s son, Nakomas, at first takes the bait, but Carson suspects foul play and convinces the young chief to join forces so they can uncover the truth.

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In the mean time, the gold is missing: Carson’s friend Matt Fargo, who also rode with him, suspected that something was up when the Indians attacked, and hid the gold before it could be stolen.  Fargo’s little daughter Joan disguises herself as a boy and stows away on the westbound wagon train to find her father.  Carson escapes from jail to find Fargo and the gold, and clear his name; when the wagon train is attacked by the enraged Cheyenne, Carson and “Johnny” Fargo end up on a runaway wagon, careening toward a stand of trees.

The 1933 serial Fighting with Kit Carson is the first serial I have watched based on a historical figure: Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868) really was a famous tracker and scout, blazing trails across the Southwest, negotiating with (and ultimately warring against) the Indians.  The subject of hagiographic dime novels even during his own lifetime, Carson has fallen out of public favor in recent decades as the history of the Indian Wars is no longer taught in such a one-sided fashion and the bloody conquest of Native peoples no longer seems so glamorous.

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Needless to say, Fighting with Kit Carson is in the dime novel tradition, crafting a typical pulp narrative around a few familiar names and character traits.  However, while the Carson of the serial is unambiguously good (and Kraft equally evil, even stooping so low as to shoot his own men to gain Matt Fargo’s trust), the conflict is not the simple “cowboys vs. Indians” one might expect from a 1930s Western.  Part of Carson’s legend is that he was a friend to the Indians (they refer to him as “White Chief” in the serial), equally trusted by the Cheyenne, settlers, and the Army.  The Cheyenne are presented as honorable, if volatile: Dark Eagle refuses to be manipulated into war by Kraft, and his son Nakomas, while quick to judgment, is an equal and ally of Carson. Of course, the surest way to introduce conflict is to call Carson’s trustworthiness into question, something that happens over and over again as Kraft works to undermine him in private while claiming to support him in public.  (The “Mystery Riders,” a band of masked and cloaked vigilantes under the control of Kraft, are another clearly cinematic element, complete with their own song that they sing as they ride, and which doubles as the theme song for the serial.)

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Fighting with Kit Carson stars Johnny Mack Brown, a college football star who got his start at MGM, as the title character.  Brown would go on to specialize in Westerns, having first played Billy the Kid opposite Wallace Beery in 1930.  Beery’s brother Noah plays Kraft, exactly the sort of sneering, scenery-chewing “heavy” that the serials were famous for, in a performance reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson.  (With his imposing size and mixture of bonhomie and sudden violence, Kraft would be a great role for John Goodman today.)  Noah’s son, Noah, Jr., plays Nakomas in braids and bronze makeup (a common practice then).  Rounding out the main cast (and second billed, above Beery Sr. and Jr.), Joan Fargo is played by Betsy King Ross, a rodeo performer and child star whom Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as Mascot’s answer to Shirley Temple.

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Fighting with Kit Carson is much less linear in its storytelling than the serials I’ve watched so far: leaving aside some of the backtracking in resolving its cliffhangers, the serial cuts back and forth in time, revealing new information about settled events, and the use of flashbacks is more extensive than the simple recapping used in the typical “economy chapter.”  (There are also some interesting graphic effects, like the use of double exposure to show the passage of time when Carson is tracking, and a dotted line representing the secret passageway between Kraft’s office and the barn that is the secret meeting place of his gang.)  The end result, while introducing variety, is frequently disjointed and hard to follow.

There are exciting stunts aplenty, however, and as in all serials there is a premium on action.  Many of the fight scenes are edited to within an inch of their lives: according to Harmon and Glut, the standards of the time required that

Bullets could not be shown striking a man’s body; the gun and the human target had to be separated by cuts from one camera angle to another.  The same rule held true for a man being struck with a club; the swing of the gun butt or blackjack had to be shown from one angle, the victim falling from another.

Perhaps it is because the Western setting puts more emphasis on gunplay than on the fistfights of Batman, but this was very noticeable in Fighting with Kit Carson, and to the blackjacks and gun butts I would add tomahawks, which were also evidently subject to this rule.

The wagon and horse chases fare better: famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, while not credited, is recognizable for his hand in a scene where Carson leaps from horse to horse on an out-of-control wagon team and is then dragged underneath the wagon, a stunt Canutt pulled off in dozens of Westerns (and which was an inspiration for the similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is dragged underneath a speeding truck).

Fighting with Kit Carson is a bit of a mixed bag, less streamlined than the serials Mascot’s successor studio Republic would be making in just a few years, but with some memorable performances (in addition to the cast already mentioned, Edmund Breese as Matt Fargo is quite good) and some literally explosive action sequences (of which more momentarily).

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What I Watched: Fighting with Kit Carson (1933, Mascot)

Where I Saw It: It is on YouTube, starting here.  (This accounts for the lower quality screenshots—sorry about that.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Secret of Iron Mountain” (Chapter Six)

Best Cliffhanger: For the first two thirds, the cliffhangers are pretty underwhelming: in my notes I’ve included “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff,” “Carson shot?” (he fell down when the shot was fired to fake out his attacker, something that happens several times in this serial), “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff again,” and “Joan Fargo falls off horse.”  Things heat up considerably in the last few chapters, however, starting with the end of Chapter Eight (“Red Phantoms”), in which Carson appears to be shot just before his wagon plunges into a canyon.  I say “appears,” as of course added footage in the next chapter shows that he not only wasn’t shot but actually jumped from the wagon before its fall.  Even Carson’s enemies are suspicious, saying uncharacteristically sensible things like “How do you know he didn’t jump?” and “Funny we haven’t found any trace of Carson’s body.” This overturns a longstanding convention of the serials, in which henchmen are constantly assuring the villain that the hero is dead, only for him to keep coming back, over and over again.

The filmmakers were obviously saving their budget for Chapter Nine (“The Invisible Enemy”), because suddenly all hell breaks loose, with Carson DROPPING A BOULDER on the Mystery Riders and leading them on a merry chase up and down the cliffside through misdirection (at one point, Carson throws a cocked rifle off the cliff, counting on it to land on a rock and fire, which of course it does).  The wagon was full of black powder (“Hey, be careful with that powder!”) which the Mystery Riders plan to use to blow up the settlers who are riding into the canyon.  Carson rushes to get the powder keg out of the way, but IT EXPLODES AS SOON AS HE PICKS IT UP! HOLY DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT, BATMAN!

At the beginning of Chapter Ten (“Midnight Magic”), we back up, and this time Carson picks up the powder keg and hurls it at a group of Mystery Riders, where it blows them up (I should point out that the keg was lit with a line of powder on the ground, not a fuse, so in order for it to explode after being picked up it’s necessary for Carson to throw the keg into a conveniently-placed campfire).  I could only imagine the confusion and cries of “CHEAT!” that must have greeted this development in the movie theater in 1933.

I was boggled: how could this have happened? I went back and watched both the cliffhanger and the resolution closely, again and again, as if it were the Zapruder film.  Ultimately, I decided there were only two explanations: either Kit Carson had the ability to warp time and space (“midnight magic,” indeed!), or those cockadoodie dirty-bird screenwriters counted on everyone in the audience to get amnesia.  There is no question that both “Best Cliffhanger” and the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat goes to Kit Carson, Master of Time and Space, getting blown up at the end of “The Invisible Enemy.”  After this, Kraft’s comeuppance in Chapter Twelve, as explosive as it is in its own right, could only be anticlimactic.

Sample Dialogue: “If I can only live long enough to tell the gang about this!” –a Mystery Rider named Rawlins, after being shot in the back by Kraft, his own boss (Chapter Four, “The Silent Doom”)

What Others Have Said: “The old breed of cowboy star was a lot tougher and gutsier than today’s star is.  Course, most of the old ones was real cowboys and circus stars at one time too, and this all helped them as film stars.  But today’s cowboy star never has the chance or the rugged real-life experiences on the range the old stars had, so they naturally are softer when it comes to the he-man action stuff.” –Noah Beery, Jr., interview with Lee O. Miller in The Great Cowboy Stars of Movies & Television

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I acquaint myself with one of the most famous names in the serials. Can you guess?

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